Religious liberty is often depicted and thought of as a political issue with its core arguments in political philosophy. Even Christians tend to stick to the political realm when defending the notion of religious freedom. Dr. Andrew Walker’s new book, Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age, offers a cure to this problem prominent in evangelical culture. He provides us with an ethic of religious liberty rooted in the Baptist tradition and centered upon a framework of eschatology, anthropology, and missiology.
The book is not a mere exposition of Romans 13, repeating several times over why the government is a penultimate institution subordinate to the ultimate reign of God in Christ. While this is certainly true and is a point Dr. Walker makes well, he goes far beyond this and offers a robust treatment of the topic at hand. Early in the book he explains his reasoning for doing this, arguing rightly that religious liberty has been “insufficiently explained on biblical and theological grounds,” with the remedy being to “anchor religious liberty to biblical motifs.” Otherwise, “Christians leave a vacuum to be filled by constitutionalism, humanism, or secularism.” One might even tie this to the issue of biblical illiteracy in evangelical culture, against which Bible teachers such as Jen Wilkin have recently been fighting. Biblical, and related theological, illiteracy leads to a weak foundation on which to understand how the reign of God relates to the age of history in which the church finds itself currently. Dr. Walker roots his eschatology in this foundation, explaining how religious liberty is tied to inaugurated eschatology.
While it is a sometimes-debated argument, Dr. Walker begins his section on eschatology by asserting that the unifying theme of Scripture is the kingdom of God. He defines the kingdom of God as “God’s reign in which Jesus is enthroned as the sovereign King with all power, sovereignty, and authority.” Clarifying terms is a strength of the book, seen again in the fourth chapter in the discussion of the two parts of the conscience (synderesis and conscientia). Inaugurated eschatology is central to a theological grounding for religious liberty, because we are presenting the gospel to consciences that will face a future judgment — and also because it helps believers understand “where and how God’s rule and mission on earth unfold.” This understanding of eschatology is not under- or over-realized, which helps us understand the penultimate role of the state. There is a future judgment, and we do not have to set up a coercive Christian state because of what lies beyond this age in redemptive history. Jesus is the only one with an “infallible conscience,” meaning we (and the state) cannot judge the conscience as it pertains to ultimate things.
Three strengths of the book were Dr. Walker’s connections to justification by faith, his discussion of the Noahic covenant, and the comparisons made between theistic and worldly ideologies. First, justification by faith is needed in our Christian view of religious freedom. Individuals enter God’s kingdom through free consciences, not through coercion or manipulation. Christianity cannot be rejected in a way that it is cut out of the public sphere; on the other hand, we cannot force conversions either. In Dr. Russell Moore’s now well-known words from SBC 2016, this sort of coercion “turns people into pretend Christians, and it sends them straight to hell.” Second, Dr. Walker’s discussion of the Noahic covenant as a covenant of preservation was fascinating, with the explanation that in the covenant we see procreation, eating, and justice, as well as that “humans are not given the task of criminalizing wrong belief.” Instead, there is a “minimalist social order.” Lastly, the comparison of transcendent moral and theological thinking with worldly ideologies was helpful. In the secular worldview, one must bring about their vision of utopia in the present age. This reality makes dissension unwelcome, so tyrannical and disastrous results are inevitable. If the current age is the only time available for perfect justice, then human beings become divine judges. In contrast, biblical truth reminds us of what Joseph knew to be true. When his brothers feared punishment and justice, Joseph responded, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?” (Gen. 50:19). There is a true divine Judge, but this judgment does not take place in this age (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:11-15).
A weakness of Dr. Walker’s book may be in his treatment of the image of God. While he rightly and helpfully argues that image-bearers are created to respond to the gospel with all of their personhood, he is somewhat vague as to what image-bearing fully entails, particularly for those less familiar with the conversations and debates surrounding this topic. However, his ties to the fundamental nature of the human being (an ontological explanation) were rather nuanced and persuasive. That humanity is made in the image of God means we are fundamentally religious beings, with religion being “a meaning-making enterprise inside a world” not necessarily tied to theism. This clarification fits with Dr. Jonathan Leeman’s point that everybody, even an atheist, is bringing religious arguments into the public sphere. We all, regardless of religious inclination or belief, act in accordance with what Dr. Walker identifies as “adoration, authenticity, and authority” to bring meaning to our lives. Therefore, we are all religious beings. This emphasis from the author is much needed even for our evangelism as we Christians come to see all people as inherently religious. It is just our desire that the Holy Spirit, through our gospel proclamation, brings about conversion and therefore religious affiliation with and submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. Here we turn to what may be the strongest of the three parts of the book, that on missiology.
How religious liberty relates to mission is most visible in what our end goal is. Dr. Walker states plainly, “Religious liberty is not an ultimate goal or eternal ethic. Worship of the Lord Jesus Christ is.” For worship of the triune God to take place, the spread of the gospel and advancement of the kingdom must occur. Dr. Walker makes the obvious note that the spread of the gospel does not require religious freedom but is indeed aided by it: “religious liberty facilitates mission by giving space and fostering the ideal conditions for the mission of Christ to continue.” This space for mission means we must support pluralism, Dr. Walker explains, but that does not mean we support relativism. The biblical understanding of religious liberty implies that there is to be no political or social force that can suppress consciences and thoughts. Free reception of the gospel of grace is possible in a public sphere of pluralism. So, how do we love our neighbors? Christians are to “proclaim to them the moral obligations owed to God and the truth that their nature is ordered toward and fulfilled by him” and allow “them to respond freely to the gospel and not [coerce] them to believe or penalizing them for false belief.” While Dr. Walker is not primarily focused on writing a defense of missions or evangelism or providing specific methods for these activities, this ethic of religious liberty depends on Christians participating in them. If the end goal of religious liberty is the worship of God, then where God in His grace allows for religious freedom to be present (and, of course, where it is not), we must proclaim the gospel — for His glory among our neighbors and all peoples.
This book is a fantastic resource for Christians to understand a biblical and theological framework for religious liberty and for us to see how richly religious freedom fits in the Baptist tradition. As a Baptist myself, I am thankful for this, and thankful for Dr. Walker’s writing — it is a book that will equip people to see why, for both the believer and unbeliever, religious liberty is a freedom to be preserved and protected, for the good of society and for the glory of God.